The best known of the war crimes trials held after World War II was the trial of “major” German war criminals held in Nuremberg, Germany. Leading officials of the Nazi regime were tried before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg, before judges from Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The IMT tried 22 Germans as major war criminals on charges of conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
But the Nuremberg trial did more than just try leading Nazi officials in government, the armed forces, and the economy. Its lasting legacy included the deliberate assembly of a public record of the horrific crimes, including those of the Holocaust, committed by the Germans and their collaborators during World War II.
The American prosecutors at Nuremberg decided the best evidence against Nazi war criminals was the record left by the Nazi German state itself. They wanted to convict Nazi war criminals with their own words. While the Germans destroyed some of the historical record at the end of the war and some German records were destroyed during the Allied bombing of German cities, Allied armies captured millions of documents during the conquest of Germany in 1945. Allied prosecutors submitted some 3,000 tons of records at the Nuremberg trial. More than a decade later, beginning in 1958, the United States National Archives, in collaboration with the American Historical Association, published 62 volumes of finding aids to the records captured by the US military at the end of the war. More than 30 further volumes were published before the end of the 20th century.
The US Army made many significant finds of Nazi booty and records, among them gold, currency, artworks, and documentation discovered on April 7, 1945, by engineers of the US 90th Infantry Division in the Kaiseroda Salt mine in Merkers, Germany. Millions of documents were captured at various locations, including records of the German Army High Command records; files from Krupp, Henschel, and other German industrial concerns; Luftwaffe (German air force) material; and records kept by Heinrich Himmler (the Chief of the German Police and Reich Leader of the SS), the German Foreign Office, and many others.
Even where central files had been destroyed, the Allies were able to some extent to reconstruct events and operations from the records they did secure. The Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) records, for example, were burned in the basement of its Prague regional headquarters but copies of many of RSHA records were found and collected from the files of local Gestapo (secret state police) offices across Germany. Captured German documents provided a record of the policies and actions of the Nazi state. Both the Wannsee Conference Protocol, which documented the cooperation of various German state agencies in the SS-led Holocaust, and the Einsatzgruppen Reports, which documented the progress of the mobile killing units assigned, among other tasks, to kill Jewish civilians during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, were among the documents central to the Holocaust submitted at Nuremberg.
During the Nuremberg trial, Nazi Germany's dedicated filming of itself was also turned into evidence of its crimes. From the earliest beginnings of the Nazi Party in the 1920s, through the military invasions of World War II and graphic depictions of atrocities, German photographers and camera crews recorded (often proudly) what they accomplished in pursuit of their ideology. Toward the end of the war, teams of Allied military personnel worked tirelessly to locate, collect, and categorize this photographic and film record.
In addition to official photography and films produced at the behest of the Nazi state, German soldiers and police took numerous photographs and film footage of German operations against Jews and other civilians. They documented the public humiliation of Jews, their deportation, mass murder, and confinement in concentration camps. This became powerful visual evidence of Nazi war crimes submitted at Nuremberg. For example, Allied prosecutors submitted the so-called “Stroop Report,” which included as an appendix an album of photographs taken on the orders of SS and Police Leader Jürgen Stroop to document his destruction of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in spring 1943. According to Stroop's own calculations, his forces captured more than 55,000 Jews and of these, killed at least 7,000 and sent 7,000 more to the Treblinka killing center.
Further visual documentation came from the US Army Signal Corps, which, in the course of photographing and filming American operations in World War II, also played a crucial role in documenting evidence of Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust. Many of the early still and moving pictures of newly liberated Nazi concentration camps were taken by Army photographers such as Arnold E. Samuelson and J Malan Heslop. A number of these images were later transmitted to news agencies in the United States and other countries, where they helped to inform the world about the horrors of Nazism and the plight of concentration camp prisoners.
On November 29, 1945, the IMT prosecution introduced an hour-long film titled "The Nazi Concentration Camps." When the lights came up in the Palace of Justice all assembled sat in silence. The human impact of this visual evidence was a turning point in the Nuremberg trial. It brought the Holocaust into the courtroom.
Eyewitness testimony from both perpetrators and survivors laid the foundation for much of what we know about the Holocaust, including details of the Auschwitz death machinery, atrocities committed by the Einsatzgruppen and other SS and police units, the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and the original statistical estimate of six million murdered Jews. Many people directly involved in the killing program died before the end of the war, but the Allies interrogated many of those who were still alive in preparation for the trial. None of the perpetrators denied the Holocaust. Most just tried to deflect their responsibility for the killings.
Three key perpetrators gave evidence directly related to the Holocaust: Hermann Göring, the highest official of the Nazi state tried at Nuremberg, testified openly and frankly about the persecution of German Jews from the rise of the Nazi party to power in 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939; Otto Ohlendorf testified directly about his unit, Einsatzgruppe D, killing 90,000 Jews in the southern Ukraine in 1941; and the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, testified frankly about the gassing of more than a million Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center during the war. All three claimed that they carried out the legitimate orders of the state.
While the testimony of perpetrators is often chilling in its frankness about the killing program, testimony from survivors, then and today, is often the best antidote to Holocaust denial. Holocaust survivors directly experienced Nazi genocidal policies. Their testimony is personal, immediate, and, for this reason, compelling. Survivors like Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier who testified at Nuremberg about her experiences at Auschwitz, and Elie Wiesel, who, after the war, wrote the book Night about his deportation from Hungarian-occupied Transylvania to Auschwitz in 1944, provide the human element. Such witnesses convey what it felt like to be the target of genocide.
Taken together, the documents, photographs, film, and perpetrator and survivor testimony at postwar trials provided an inescapable and undeniable documentation of the Holocaust.
Series: Holocaust Denial
Series: International Military Tribunal
Critical Thinking Questions
- How and why do deniers of the Holocaust explain their beliefs in the face of the overwhelming mass of documentation and testimony?
- Investigate the efforts to document mass atrocities since the Holocaust. What new types of evidence may be included?
Evans, Richard J. Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Gottfried, Ted. Deniers of the Holocaust: Who They Are, What They Do, Why They Do It. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001.
Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Shermer, Michael, and Alex Grobman. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Zimmerman, John C. Holocaust Denial: Demographics, Testimonies, and Ideologies. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.